EMBRACE: Asia people group draws church's responsiveness

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (BP) -- Because Mark met Mike, the Gospel is moving toward the "T" people in Southeast Asia.

Mark Harrison, missions pastor at Old Town Baptist Church in North Carolina, met Mike*, a missionary in Southeast Asia, during an International Mission Board regional training conference. Harrison was stirred by Mike's work so much so that he subsequently visited the country where Mike is stationed to learn more about ministry needs in that part of the world.

Now, three years later, Old Town is working with Mike and his wife Beth* to engage a people group in Southeast Asia that the church identifies as the "T people." The T people have not been the focus of any known church-planting strategy and they have an evangelical presence less than 2 percent. About one year ago Old Town began their journey to engage the T people, and the church has affirmed God's leading in that direction.

The missionary couple, who are stateside for several months, recently participated in a Sunday morning worship service at Old Town that focused on international missions -- and celebrated God calling the Winston-Salem church to Southeast Asia to share the Gospel with the T people.

"There's a lot you can do. More than you can imagine," Mike said. He voiced appreciation for Old Town's commitment to "embrace" -- as the International Mission Board describes it -- an unengaged, unreached people group.

"We [the IMB] can't get to all the people groups," Mike said. "We don't have the time or the resources."

Volunteer teams are crucial because many missionaries serve in places where they can't risk too much public exposure that might cause the government to force them out of the country.

"You can do things we can't do," Mike said. "You can help give our national workers an audience [among the T people]. Everyone wants to hear what the foreigner has come to say.

"Volunteers are an essential part," he added. "We need you to come alongside us."

Beth shared how God has allowed her to reach out and serve the women on their missionary team. Some of them spend many hours home alone, caring for children. She has helped them connect with one another and find ways to minister to those around them.

By engaging the T people, Old Town will be participating in what Mike called the "forward movement of the church" that goes back to the New Testament book of Acts when the church began spreading out from Jerusalem. Despite persecution and being scattered throughout various areas, Jesus' followers took the message of salvation with them, believing that the Gospel must be shared with all people.

"The church was growing, but they were not satisfied. Hearts began to burn for nations around them," Mike said, asking, "Are you satisfied with a world around you that is lost and going to hell?"

Mike told the story of a Buddhist man (98 percent of the T people are Buddhist) who heard the Gospel for the first time at the age of 90 and then asked a haunting question: Why have I never heard this story before?

Mike now is training Old Town members to better understand the T people's culture, worldview and religion as well as appropriate evangelism and discipleship methods.

Very little is known about the T people. Until recently, they were thought to be part of a larger Southeast Asian people group. Now, Mike explained, research is showing that the T people are their own group of about a half a million people.

One of the biggest obstacles to T people coming to faith will be Buddhism.

"Buddhism is the whole culture," Mike said. "You're asking them to forsake everything they've ever known."

With such a high percentage of the population being Buddhist, the T people's government does not yet view Christianity as a threat. However, Mike said, this may change as T people come to faith in Christ.

Harrison and Old Town senior pastor Rick Speas will be traveling to Southeast Asia in February to spend about two weeks cultivating relationships among the T people.

In March, an Old Town group will participate in an IMB Embrace Southeast Asian people's training event in Dallas.

Old Town also plans to hold a church-wide celebration/commitment dinner in March to officially launch the work among the T people.

"It's exciting to see all this unfold," Harrison said. "Everything is moving along well, and only by God's design. The things that have come together are not things I -- nor anyone I know -- could produce by any human means. It's awesome to be part of everything that God is choosing to do."


*Names changed for security reasons. Melissa Lilley is research and communications coordinator for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. For more information about the Embrace initiative of the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, go to www.imb.org.